Honest, I was just trying to bail the language out of a recurrent leaky boat. But my readers say, "Write your way around it instead of giving us `herm.' "

Ah, "herm," my brainchild, my chance to make history! To herm or not to herm, that was the question. Here's the phraseological mess that gave rise to my herm-storm:

"Nothing's more important than your child. Support them in every way."

I spotted this language in an ad that's aimed at deadbeat dads. As you can tell in a flash, "them" in the second sentence doesn't agree with "child" in the first, because "child" is singular and "them" is plural.

However, as I noted in my June 9 column, this kind of error has gotten to the lip of acceptance because the sense of "child" is plural, even if the word itself is not. Still, in honor of seventh-grade English teachers great and small, isn't there a way to be faithful to our tradition of numerical agreement?

I thought there was. I nominated "herm" as the solution, as in, "Nothing's more important than your child. Support herm in every way."

Herm is a blend of "her" and "him," I wrote. It dances around the thorny question of whether a deadbeat dad's child is male or female. It avoids "agreement trouble." And we don't have to use "him" when we might mean "her," as in, "Nothing's more important than your child. Support him in every way."

I received precisely two positive responses to my idea. Cecilia Caswell, of Falls Church, said simply that she likes it. And then there was the fax from the fellow in Sterling.

"I would be delighted if you arranged to have `Support Herm in Every Way' signs posted on buses," said the message. "I would send you my mailing address for those who would like to contribute."

My correspondent? Herman "Herm" Riley, who signs himself "Daily Reader." He might want to change that to "Wise Guy Who Just Gored Bob Levey, Big-Time."

Anyway, the herm-hating was curt, clever, voluminous. Samples:

"I'd rather stay out of herm's way." -- Anonymous voice-mailer.

"Sounds too much like `harm.' " -- Fil Feit.

"A late April Fool's joke, right?" -- Barbara Weber, of Manassas.

"Can't say it without laughing." -- Cathleen Phelps.

"[Sounds] like a germ or a perm or a worm or a hermit crab." -- Kristen Hollies (age 11).

"The cure would be worse than the disease." -- R.J. Drachman.

"We do not need another contrived word to solve a problem that exists only in the twisted minds of man-hating radical feminists." -- Lew Hendrixson, of Crofton.

"Sounds like [a] word we would coin here in Middle Tennessee just because we would be too lazy or stubborn (or both) to use proper grammar." -- Bob Brandon, of Antioch, Tenn.

"Are you out of your cotton-pickin' mind?" -- James Bruce Wilson, of Arlington.

And for sheer, clipped finality:

"Herm makes me squirm." -- MaryAnn Mennuti.

Many correspondents said the problem in the ad could be ducked by writing: "Nothing's more important than your children. Support them in every way." But that assumes each deadbeat dad has more than one child. We're back in the imprecise soup again.

A few readers noted that "herm" has already been taken.

"A friend in Baltimore law enforcement" notes that, in prison, a "herm" is a reluctant sexual partner of another inmate. "The less said, the better," this observer observes.

"A former machinist" says that a "herm" in that business is a set of calipers.

And several readers with classical educations said that "herm" will not work as a two-gender word for a very important reason.

A "herm" is the accepted term for a statue of the Greek god Hermes, these readers said. In every case, "Herm statues" display male genitals very prominently. "Uh, Bob, my dear friend, it just wouldn't work as a `female' word," said Gretchen Gwynn, of Alexandria, with admirable gentleness.

Okay, gang. This guy knows when he's beaten. "Herm" goes back into the barn. My eyes and ears still work, even if my fevered brain does not.


The first wave of underprivileged children is enjoying Camp Moss Hollow. Will we send more waves this summer? That depends on your generosity. Please back our annual fund-raising campaign. Hundreds of needy kids won't get to camp unless you do.

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In hand as of June 21: $100,555.29.


Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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